Increasingly, golf is lost in the small print
Thirty summers have now passed since I walked into a media centre for the first time as a golf correspondent to attend the St Mellion Tournament Players Championship in lovely Cornwall. Renton Laidlaw, then as now a kindly soul, took time out from his deadline duties on the London Evening Standard to introduce me to everyone.
There were a lot of introductions to make. There were correspondents representing every major newspaper in Scotland, for example. With the exception of the Financial Times, every national daily and Sunday newspaper based in London had also despatched its golf correspondent to the West Country. The provincials had a healthy presence as well, including the Birmingham Post, whom I was representing.
And so it was that I joined a circuit that trooped up and down the land during the summer months. In 1983 there were 12 tournaments in England and Wales. We brought news of our parishioners as we liked to think of them, and that is how it remained for the best part of 20 years.
Now? The tournaments are down to two which, funnily enough, mirrors exactly the number of full-time golf correspondents presently employed by newspapers in these isles.
There’s me, now working for the Daily Mail; and James Corrigan, who works for the Daily Telegraph. Perhaps the last of us standing – probably him, since he’s ten years younger – will come up with a book and call it Last Writes.
You don’t have to be a Fleet Street nostalgia merchant to be saddened by this state of affairs. The shrinkage of golf tournaments in this country has seen the sport slip down the newspaper priority list for a number of reasons, and all of them add up to being bad for golf. Whether it’s for budgetary reasons – few papers, in these cash-strapped times, can afford to send journalists to cover regular tournaments in places like China or America – or the fact it’s easier to dismiss events in far-flung places rather than on your doorstep, it’s a fact that column inches devoted to the sport have shrunk dramatically. There are no winners when there is less publicity.
And yet the audience is still out there. In a recent survey of over 5,000 golfers, only the amount of golf coverage in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph scored even satisfactory marks.
To be fair to most journals, the decline of the golf correspondent has been symptomatic of the decline of newspapers themselves. The Scottish newspaper industry is in a desperate battle to stay alive, and so it’s not surprising that, even in the land where the game began, golf correspondents are doubling up as football or rugby writers and being sent hardly anywhere but the odd major.
But, at the risk of indulging in the usually best-avoided exercise of dog eat dog, some of the decisions taken stray into the realms of the ridiculous.
How do you excuse the regrettable actions of a group as well-funded and with such a rich heritage of golf writing as The Times and Sunday Times? One hundred years ago, Bernard Darwin of The Times was despatched by the owner of the paper no less, to cover a United States Open that would be won by Francis Ouimet and inspire books and films and be called The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Now, barely credibly, neither paper has a golf correspondent. Yes, one month after Justin Rose became the first British winner of the United States Open in 43 years, at a time when we have more world-class players than for at least a generation, Peter Dixon, my estimable colleague at The Times, was shown the door and the post made redundant. Are we really supposed to believe we’re living in a less prosperous age than a century ago?
And yet I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised given the pathetic manner in which its sister paper has treated the sport for years. Once they employed a man called Dudley Doust, who would talk to everybody and make continuous phone calls to all parts of the globe in pursuit of a fresh angle. Contrast that to the last few seasons, where coverage in the Sunday Times has consisted almost entirely of a bloke sitting in front of a television watching golf on Sky and writing a commentary piece about it.
Some of my most valued colleagues, like Mark Garrod, longtime golf correspondent for the Press Association and David Smith of the Evening Standard opted to walk away than continue to operate like that.
Let’s hope The Times, at least, comes to its senses. After all, the Daily Telegraph went through a bizarre phase a few years ago, giving the game little coverage, only to be reminded by its readers that, actually, they are great lovers of the sport. As chairman of the Association of Golf Writers, I sense a great will among bodies like the European Tour, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America for us to survive and carry on doing our jobs.
But it’s hard to be optimistic. The Association of Golf Writers (AGA) is 75 years old this year and, I regret to say, we’re showing our age.